Opinion: Marijuana has been used for years in Vermont, legalizing will ease a lot of inherent problems

With the legalization of recreational marijuana on the Statehouse docket, a full public conversation on this important issue has finally begun. As could be expected, opinions vary greatly, but on one thing we all agree: This is a crucial public health issue, and it’s vital that Vermont get it right.
The debate ultimately sugars off into a single question: Would legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults improve or diminish public health and safety in Vermont?
After much consideration, I believe the evidence clearly shows that marijuana legalization would represent a marked improvement over current circumstances because the system of prohibition currently in place has done an absolutely abysmal job of keeping our roads safe, our schools protected and our children healthy.
Make no mistake — I fully appreciate the concerns expressed by those opposed to legal recreational marijuana. They are not to be taken lightly. Yet when I look around at what’s happening today in Addison County and beyond, I see that those concerns have long since become reality, and that prohibition isn’t helping.
Opponents, for example, rightfully worry about road safety. If marijuana is legalized, will our roadways face a new threat from “stoned” drivers? The answer is no for the simple reason that that threat already exists today. Legalization won’t suddenly introduce it to our towns. What it will do is bring some much-needed attention to the situation and provide revenue to supply cash-strapped police departments with the tools, training and manpower needed to adequately deal with the problem.
Those against legalization also quite correctly worry what kind of message it will send to our kids and what will become of our schools as a result. Will they find themselves suddenly awash in pot?
Again, the answer is no because they already are. As the father of a student at Mount Abe and the partner of a full-time professional working within the many public schools of northern and central Addison County, I have intimate firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground, and it quite simply this: Our schools are flooded with marijuana right now, and the young people I know report that it is easier to obtain than tobacco or alcohol. Prohibition has already taken us where we fear to go and created a flourishing underground marketplace far out of sight of law enforcement and far out of the control of concerned parents.
Worse, it has not sent a reasonable message to our kids, and they are smart enough to know it. It demonizes marijuana with no room for discussion, yet when the drug is tried by teens, the short-term results seem so apparently harmless that that demonization becomes laughable, and any legitimate messages it was attempting to send — namely that marijuana is demonstrably harmful to the developing brain — are lost in the extreme nature of the prohibition position.
As a parent, I am even more concerned by the risks of escalation posed by the underground marijuana marketplace. Though science has disproved the notion of marijuana as a “gateway” substance whose use leads to other, harder drugs, its purchase is a gateway activity. When our kids have easy access to marijuana dealers, they also have easy access to whatever else those dealers are selling, and the relatively innocent search for marijuana often leads straight to other far more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and opioids. Dealers with few scruples have no qualms about creating new markets for themselves and are quite free to do so in prohibition’s regulatory void.
There is also the issue of just what our kids are ingesting when they obtain marijuana from the underground market. Only last week, for example, our dinner table conversation revolved around two students at Mount Abe who were hospitalized after smoking pot that had been laced with an apparently toxic chemical to boost its effects.
Such is the legacy prohibition has left for our children: Marijuana is easier to obtain than alcohol or tobacco, and the stuff itself can and does contain additives even more dangerous than the pot itself. Meanwhile, the urgent message that marijuana is not OK for growing minds has been drowned out by the extremity of the prohibition position, and the act of purchasing marijuana on the black market is introducing our kids to drugs that are even more worrisome. By any coherent standard, prohibition’s failure to protect public health and children’s safety is complete.
With reasonable taxation and an appropriate regulatory framework, legalized recreational marijuana will shut down the black market, greatly restrict if not eliminate underage access to the drug, allow us to send a much clearer and more reasoned message regarding its dangers to young people, and at last provide law enforcement with the resources needed to genuinely protect public safety.
Is it a perfect solution? No. People will still drive stoned. Teenagers will still smoke pot. As it has been, so it shall be. But legalization will make those and many other things a good deal more difficult to do and much easier to control to say nothing of the myriad other vexing issues it would address from needless incarceration and state interference in private adult behavior to the blatant hypocrisy of banning a substance that is arguably less harmful to adults than alcohol and tobacco, which are legal for purchase in our state.
I recognize that it is exceptionally hard both personally and professionally for many legalization opponents to cut through the intense passions and high-volume hyperbole surrounding this issue and reverse a lifetime of strongly held opinions that have been consistently supported by our nation’s earnest if misguided “war on drugs.” Yet I maintain hope that logic and reason will ultimately win out over emotions and that an objective look at the facts will lead the Vermont House to conclude that our current marijuana regulatory system is badly broken and demanding a radically different approach, one that brings marijuana out of the shadows and treats it the other common demons in our midst, alcohol and tobacco.
It’s either that or we keep our heads buried in the sand while marijuana use continues to rage in all the wrong places. That’s not what our kids need. And it’s not what the rest of us need either.
Geoff Davis
New Haven

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